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His apartment was as he left it, barring the dust, the musty smells of stale smoke and the blackened cleaning droid lying on its side in the middle of the kitchen.

Well, that explains the dust, thought Jali, leaving his carry-all in the middle of the room. For a moment he stood there, taking it all in. There were no cameras here, no sharp buzzing in the morning accompanied by the curt command to line up against the wall. The absence of it all was rather unnerving.

He started when the doorchime sounded and for a moment he continued to stand there. The chime sounded a second time and he went to the security panel in the hall.

A few buttons showed the image of Tira, she gave him a grin with her purple-tinted lips and held up several plast-sealed packages to the camera.

“Let me in,” she said with a giggle, “I’ve brought ya somethin’ to eat”.

Grinning at the hologram, he unlocked the door.

For a moment Tira stood there in the doorway, all legs and blond hair, clutching several packages that fell forgotten to the floor when she hurled herself into Jali’s waiting embrace. No inhibitions, no hesitations whatsoever.

When they parted, Tira tried to remove some of the lipstick from Jali’s face with a wet finger, “It’s like no time has passed,” she whispered to him, but they both knew she was lying.

Jali smiled down at her. “No, I can’t ignore seven years and neither can you,” he said.

Tira agreed but chose to say nothing; the seven years had changed them both. The seven years in prison had left their mark on Jali, and more than just physically.

As for Tira, she had long since left the Seventh Star, the seedy tapcaf on Vos Gesal Street she had worked in as a dancer. Now she worked as one of the many undersecretaries in the office of Senator Stoll of Vergoda, quite a step up. Still, she carried that wariness with her as well as the grace of a dancer, something that couldn’t be left behind.

“Do you want to eat now, or later?” Tira asked.

Jali considered. “Later,” he said finally.

The packages were left on the floor.

Having lived all his life on the capital world, Jali of course knew that conduit worms occasionally crawled up from the lower levels to play havoc with the power supply. There were also the amphibious snakes that lurked in the water pipes. Fortunately, none had come to his place in his absence. The hot water was good and strong, even if it took its time warming up. He spent a good fifteen minutes under the spray then entered the kitchen clad only in his towel. If this was to suggest some ulterior motive for later, it was entirely lost on Tira. She was utterly absorbed in removing their meals from the re-hydrator.

Before Jali had gone in, he had been seeing Tira on and off for about five years. But somehow, they had never ‘made it official’. They had talked about it, but that wasn’t the same thing as seriously considering it. Somehow, whenever he brought it up, Tira merely shrugged it off, saying that it wasn’t a good time, or she wasn’t ready yet. But for all that, she had waited for him while he was in prison.

So perhaps it’s the time to bring it up again, Jali thought as they ate together. As long as he had known Tira, the one thing she craved was stability, given her experiences growing up in the underlevels. Perhaps, he mused, she won’t have any objections this time.

“Before you ask, it was Balor who told me,” Tira said, smiling across the table at him.

“For an informant, he’s sure got a big mouth,” Jali observed.

Tira gave him an arch look. “Didn’t you tell me once not to talk to just anyone?”

“Balor isn’t just anyone,” Jali said, finishing his food and pushing the plate away. “Besides, unless the information’s public property, Balor never tells you anything unless you pay.”

“Trust me,” Tira assured him, “I paid.” She smiled at him for a few minutes, narrowing her eyes suggestively at him. Then, suddenly, she jumped up, took the empty plates to the washer, and slipped on her shoes.

Jali stood up. “You’re not staying?”

“No, I have to leave early tomorrow,” she said, straightening her blonde curls in the hall mirror. She turned to look at him. “As much as I’d like to, I can’t,” she explained. “I’m accompanying Senator Stoll to Brentaal.” She headed back into the bedroom for her coat, Jali followed.

He walked up behind her and gently touched her pale cheek with his dark hand. “Will you be gone long?”

She shook her head as she zipped up her coat. “Just a few days.” She turned to grin at him. “Tollan knows you’re back.”

“He does?”

“I told him.” Tira started to walk out.

“Why isn’t he here then?” Jali asked, leaning on the open door.

She gave him a wicked smile. “I wanted you all to myself, of course.” She closed the door, leaving Jali on the other side.

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